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HRW Letter to Albright
Washington, D.C., February 23, 2000

The Honorable Madeleine K. Albright
Secretary of State
U.S. Department of State
2201 C St.
Washington, DC 20520

Dear Madam Secretary:

I wish to draw your attention to information obtained by Human Rights Watch that provides detailed, abundant, and compelling evidence of continuing close ties between the Colombian Army and paramilitary groups responsible for gross human rights violations. We strongly urge you to place strict conditions aimed at upholding respect for human rights on all U.S. security assistance provided to the Colombian military.

Related Materials

COLOMBIA: The Ties That Bind: Colombia and Military-Paramilitary Links

"When an aid package of this size is debated in Washington, it's crucial that the facts be clear. And the facts we've established about links between the Colombian military and paramilitaries are truly alarming."

José Miguel Vivanco
Executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch

This information was compiled by Colombian government investigators and Human Rights Watch. Several of our sources, including eyewitnesses, have requested anonymity because their lives are under threat as a result of their testimony.

Far from moving decisively to sever ties to paramilitaries, our evidence strongly suggests that Colombia's military high command has yet to take the necessary steps to accomplish this goal. Our information implicates Colombian Army brigades operating in the country's three largest cities, including the capital, Bogotá. If Colombia's leaders cannot or will not halt these units' support for paramilitary groups, the government's resolve to end human rights abuse in units that receive U.S. security assistance must be seriously questioned.

In previous Human Rights Watch reports and documents, we have detailed credible and compelling evidence contained in government and other investigations of continuing ties between the military and paramilitary groups in the Fifth, Seventh, Ninth, Fourteenth, and Seventeenth Brigades.

Together, evidence collected so far by Human Rights Watch links half of Colombia's eighteen brigade-level army units (excluding military schools) to paramilitary activity. These units operate in all of Colombia's five divisions. In other words, military support for paramilitary activity remains national in scope and includes areas where units receiving or scheduled to receive U.S. military aid operate.

We have drawn this information to the attention of the appropriate Colombian government ministers and officials, and have urged them to take immediate action to address these continuing problems in accordance with existing Colombian law.

Based on the enclosed evidence, Human Rights Watch found that:

  • As recently as 1999, Colombian government investigators gathered compelling evidence that Army officers set up a "paramilitary" group using active duty, retired, and reserve duty military officers along with hired paramilitaries who effectively operated alongside Army soldiers and in collaboration with them;

  • In 1997, 1998, and 1999, a thorough Colombian government investigation collected compelling evidence that Army officers worked intimately with paramilitaries under the command of Carlos Castaño. They shared intelligence, planned and carried out joint operations, provided weapons and munitions, supported with helicopters and medical aid, and coordinated on a day to day basis. Some of the officers involved remain on active duty and in command of troops;

  • There is credible evidence, obtained through Colombian government investigations and Human Rights Watch interviews, that in 1998 and 1999, Army intelligence agents gathered information on Colombians associated with human rights protection, government investigative agencies, and peace talks, who were then subjected to threats, harassment, and attacks by the army, at times with the assistance of paramilitary groups and hired killers;

  • There is credible evidence that this alliance between military intelligence, paramilitary groups, and hired killers is national in scope and is able to threaten key investigators in the Attorney General's office and the Procuraduría;

  • The brigades discussed here -- the Third, Fourth, and Thirteenth -- operate in Colombia's largest cities, including the capital. Their commanders are considered among the most capable and intelligent, and are leading candidates for promotion to positions of overall command of divisions, the Army, and Colombia's joint forces. If Colombia's leaders cannot or will not halt support for paramilitary groups in these units, it is highly questionable to assume that they will be more successful in units that are less scrutinized or operate in rural areas, including units that receive U.S. security assistance in southern Colombia;

  • As these cases underline, Colombia's civilian investigative agencies, in particular the Attorney General's office, are capable of sophisticated and hard-hitting investigations. However, many investigators assigned to cases that implicate the Army and paramilitaries have been forced to resign or to flee Colombia;

  • At least seven officers mentioned in the attached report are School of the Americas graduates. Training alone, even when it includes human rights instruction, does not prevent human rights abuses. It must be accompanied by by clear and determined action on the part of the Colombian government to bring to justice those in the military who have committed human rights abuses, to force the military to break longstanding ties to paramilitary groups, and to ensure that the Colombian Armed Forces are subject to the rule of law, including the August 1997 Constitutional Court decision that mandates that security force personnel accused of committing crimes against humanity are tried in civilian courts.

In your statements on Colombia, you have rightly identified respect for human rights as an important element in shaping U.S. policy, and we welcome that. We can all recall the serious and shameful failures of U.S. policy in the hemisphere during the Cold War, when human rights were repeatedly ignored, undermined, or openly contravened in favor of continued support for the region's most brutal and abusive regimes, among them Chile under General Pinochet. With your invaluable support, the United States has begun to declassify many of the records on the United States' involvement in Chile.

None of us wish that experience repeated. Given the poor record of the Colombian military, it is particularly important that human rights safeguards form a centerpiece of U.S. policy and that concerns about the control and the direction of security assistance be directly and thoroughly addressed.

The Leahy Amendment established a vital precedent for requiring adherence to human rights standards. Below, we set out measurable benchmarks that the United States should require of Colombia before any further U.S. security assistance is made available. These benchmarks should be used as a basis for monitoring compliance and for immediately suspending aid in case of any breach.

1. All U.S. security assistance should be conditioned on explicit actions by the Colombian Government to sever links, at all levels, between the Colombian military and paramilitary groups. Abuses directly attributed to members of the Colombian military have decreased in recent years, but over the same period the number and scale of abuses attributed to paramilitary groups operating with the military's acquiescence or open support have skyrocketed. U.S. assistance should not be provided either to those who directly commit human rights abuses or to those who effectively contract others to carry out abuses on their behalf.

The actions that the Colombian government should be required to take include:

  • devising and implementing a comprehensive and public plan to investigate, pursue, capture, and bring to justice paramilitary leaders, one that provides sufficient resources and guarantees the necessary political support to accomplish these goals. The U.S. Secretary of State should report to the U.S. Congress at three-month intervals to certify that measurable progress, including the capture and prosecution of paramilitary leaders according to Colombian law and with full guarantees of due process, is taking place;

  • providing a significant increase of funding for the Attorney General's Human Rights Unit, including increased support for the Witness Protection program, travel, communications equipment, increased security, and improved evidence-gathering capability. The work of Colombia's Attorney General's office has contributed significantly to the protection of human rights and accountability for serious crimes, including crimes committed by Colombia's guerrillas. Yet prosecutors and investigators continue to run deadly risks. Many have been forced to leave the country because of threats against their lives, leaving the fate of crucial cases in jeopardy;

  • establishing the ability at the regional and local level to respond to threats of massacres and targeted violence, including the creation of a rapid reaction force to investigate threats and killings, and to take steps to pursue and apprehend alleged perpetrators in order to bring them to justice;
With regard to U.S. training of Colombian military and police, we urge you to ensure that:

  • all U.S. advice and training includes detailed instruction regarding the obligation of all members of the military and security forces to uphold Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions and Protocol II. Training should include hypothetical situations that reflect Colombian reality, and students should be closely evaluated on their understanding and application of international humanitarian law. Specialists from the International Committee of the Red Cross should be invited to contribute to such training;

  • all existing training materials are reviewed in coordination with representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Defensoría del Pueblo, the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Colombian Attorney General, and a representative of independent human rights groups, to ensure that they reflect the highest standards of protection for human rights and international humanitarian law;

  • all trainees, whether of officer rank or below, receive appropriate instruction in human rights and international humanitarian law.

2. The information submitted by Human Rights Watch shows clearly that intelligence-sharing remains the most pervasive and common method of collaboration between the Colombian military and paramilitary groups, with grave consequences for human rights. Intelligence is by definition a central function of any army, and is clearly so in the case of the Colombian military. Addressing the problems such information-sharing poses defies a unit-by-unit approach. Therefore:

  • observing the aim of the Leahy Amendment, the United States should apply human rights conditions to all intelligence-sharing, to ensure that information is neither shared with human rights abusers nor with those who will pass it to paramilitary groups that violate human rights;

  • for the purposes of compliance with the Leahy Amendment, the United States should make it clear that aiding and abetting any paramilitary group would result in a unit being disqualified for receipt of further U.S. aid or training until effective measures are taken to investigate and punish violations. For example, should a particular antinarcotics battalion be found to be directly abusing or collaborating in the abuse of human rights, immediate steps should be taken by the U.S. to halt assistance to the entire brigade;

  • any increase in security assistance should mean a proportionate increase in civilian staff assigned to the U.S. Embassy and State Department to oversee compliance with human rights conditions. Staff should be required to meet frequently with not only military and government sources of information, but also independent human rights groups, the church, and aid organizations. The goal must be to gather as much information as possible about reported human rights violations;

  • a report on monitoring activities in countries where the Leahy Amendment applies should be a regular part of the State Department's annual report on human rights and should be available for independent review.

3. The "effective measures" set out in the Leahy Amendment should be interpreted to include, among other measures, the rigorous application of the August 1997 ruling of Colombia's Constitutional Court, which requires that crimes against humanity allegedly committed by military personnel be investigated and tried in civilian courts. Neither the military nor the Superior Judicial Council charged with resolving jurisdictional disputes have abided by this ruling to date.

  • as a condition of U.S. security assistance, the Government of Colombia should first require the military to respect civilian jurisdiction in cases involving credible allegations of human rights abuse by military personnel, including cases where officers are accused of conspiring to commit or facilitate murders and massacres by paramilitary groups. In this way, President Pastrana can ensure that such cases are sent to civilian courts, best equipped to investigate them impartially and guarantee due process;

  • the United States should require that the Colombian military set up an independent review committee, composed of high level representatives from the Attorney General's office and the office of the Procuraduría, to assess whether there is credible evidence of human rights abuse against individual officers and soldiers. If such credible evidence is found, the individual should be immediately suspended and the case sent to the civilian courts for prosecution. If found guilty, the individual should be permanently dismissed from the security forces;

  • to reinforce sanctions on abusive security force members, the United States should conduct a review of all visas granted to military personnel and ensure that individuals against whom there is credible evidence of human rights abuse or support for paramilitary groups have their visas revoked or are denied visas to enter the United States;

  • to strengthen accountability, the United States must urge Colombia to reform the rules governing investigations and disciplinary proceedings carried out by the Procuraduría. The Procuraduría is the government agency that oversees the conduct of government employees, including members of the military and police, and can order them sanctioned or dismissed. Currently, however, delays in investigation mean that many investigations into serious human rights crimes must be shelved due to excessively short statutes of limitations. Also, the crime of murder is not included as a reason for dismissal. Even when the Procuraduría finds that a member of the security forces has committed murder, it can recommend no more stringent punishment than a "severe reprimand," simply a letter in the individual's employment file;

  • the United States must require that Colombia void the statute of limitations for investigations into crimes against humanity and other, related human rights violations.

4. Further, the United States should urge Colombia to pass and rigorously enforce laws that protect human rights including laws penalizing forced disappearance, unlawful detention, and torture. Legislation that officially recognizes and supports the work of the Attorney General's Human Rights Unit should also be supported by the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá.

5. Human rights defenders are among the most at-risk groups in Colombia. The United States should support their work by increasing funding for non-governmental groups that apply for assistance from the Agency for International Development. Funds should help strengthen their ability to investigate and report on human rights violations.

6. The United States should provide increased funding for Colombia's forcibly displaced, not only those who may be forced to abandon their homes because of future coca eradication efforts. Currently Colombia ranks third in the world in terms of the number of forcibly displaced people. Aid should be channeled through the church and independent aid and human rights groups rather than the government, in view of the latter's previous failure to follow through with promised assistance.

Please feel free to contact me if you require further information.


José Miguel Vivanco
Executive Director

cc President Andrés Pastrana Arango
Attorney General Alfonso Gómez Méndez
Procurador General Jaime Cuéllar Bernal
Foreign Minister Guillermo Fernández de Soto
Defense Minister Luis Fernando Ramírez
Gen. Fernando Tapias Stahelin
Gen. Jorge Enrique Mora
Mr. Anders Kompass
Amb. Luis Moreno
Amb. Curtis Kamman
Amb. Peter Romero
Harold Hongju Koh
Arturo Valenzuela
William Cohen, Secretary of Defense
Brian Sheridan, Pentagon
Gen. Charles Wilhelm, U.S. Southern Command
Gen. Barry McCaffrey, ONDCP